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Empty chairs and broken dreams: The long, slow demise of Queen’s Rise

It was supposed to revitalise Auckland CBD’s food scene, but three years since opening, Queen’s Rise is hanging by a thread. Former tenants tell Alice Neville what went wrong. 

Visiting Queen’s Rise, the downtown Auckland “laneway-style dining destination” that launched to much fanfare in 2018, is a strange experience these days. If you can catch it when the doors are open, the escalators still whirr, upbeat music blares and the neon signs are lit up.

After you pass the vacant ground-floor site that was once a pharmacy and beauty salon and ascend the escalators, you’re faced with an ominous row of red Parisian bistro-style chairs, almost warning you not to go further. You’ll have no trouble finding a seat – dozens of tables and chairs are set up outside each eatery, despite the fact all but one has closed down. On a recent lunchtime visit, a pair of office workers were making use of one of the empty tables to eat their sushi, brought in from elsewhere. Chairs and tables are used to block off certain areas, too – it’s not a big space, but if you take a wrong turn you’ll find yourself momentarily trapped, which adds to a distinctly uneasy atmosphere.

A row of chairs at the top of the escalator, and more chairs blocking a space next to an empty site (Photos: Alice Neville)

Today, the sole survivor of the original 11 Queen’s Rise eateries is Panda Town, a dumpling-focused Chinese place. It’s a pleasant spot, with windows overlooking Queen Street and a low wall separating it from the abandoned food hall, which goes some way towards blocking out the depressing vibes. At least six tables were occupied on a recent lunchtime visit, with a steady stream of takeaway customers too.

Panda Town hasn’t been on its own for long: for some months Tokyo Loco Bowl battled on too. But the Japanese joint, which has another branch in Pitt Street, shut its doors on Friday, May 7, with a sign on the door attributing the closure to the lease ending.

A sign on the wall of Tokyo Loco Bowl’s Queen’s Rise site, and Panda Town, still attracting customers (Photos: Alice Neville)

Before Tokyo Loco Bowl, Auckland’s level three lockdown in August 2020 took out several other tenants in one fell swoop. One of them was juice and salad bar Jar Story, whose co-owner, Sally Chen, now says, “We just want to leave that place and get a new start.”

Because while the business closed almost a year ago, Chen and several other former tenants are still trying to get property management company Colliers International to release the deposits they made to secure bank guarantees – a bank’s promise to pay a specified sum to the landlord when a tenant defaults on the lease. Chen’s deposit was more than $20,000, and that’s at the lower end of the scale.

“I have been asking since October last year,” she says. “They either reply ‘no’ or say we will reply to you next week. Next week, next week, next week, it never happens.”

Another tenant whose business closed after the August lockdown is Joel Stirling of Poké Bar. “If we got our deposit back we’d be happy,” he says. “We’ve lost the fit-out costs, time, energy and lots of sleep. Staff have lost their jobs and people can’t pay their mortgages.”

Chen, who estimates she and her business partner have lost at least $200,000 on the business, not counting the fact they essentially worked for free for two years, says she’s heard of many landlords returning deposits to tenants whose businesses closed due to the pandemic. “We just want to release this money because business is not good at this time, especially for small businesses,” says Chen, who now runs a takeaway shop in Newmarket. 

She says in April this year, Colliers did agree to return her deposit, but when she followed up a few days later via email, she received a reply saying Colliers was “committed to Queen’s Rise and they kindly request that all tenants pay their rental”, despite…

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